When a milkshake doesn’t really mean a milkshake (Jameson)

To illustrate the concepts discussed in this week’s readings, I would like to focus on the symbolic genre of a movie scene. In particular, to make the theoretical concepts come alive, I will specifically examine what is perhaps one of the most iconic scenes in contemporary film, the “I drink your milkshake!” scene from There Will Be Blood.

To someone who doesn’t speak English, this line in and of itself holds no meaning. To a casual English speaker who hears this line out of the context of the movie, it may sound comical, juvenile, or just ludicrous. But to someone watching the movie, who has the ability to think symbolically at high levels, this line takes on a whole new, sinister meaning. This is because meaning generation is a process, as Peirce calls semiosis, and the context in which the meaning is generated is important to what the meaning turns out to be. [1] Just as this is true within the triadic model framework in language, it can also be true for other mediums and forms of communication. As best as I can, I will map Peirce’s model for language onto this particular movie scene.

This scene is the climax of the film and pits the ruthless oil tycoon protagonist Daniel (Daniel Day Lewis) against his nemesis Eli, an opportunistic preacher who cares more about money than faith (Paul Dano). [SPOILERS] It is near the end of the movie, and Eli is offering to sell Daniel a piece of oil-rich property that Daniel has had his eye on for a while. To humiliate him, Daniel agrees to buy the property only if Eli renounces his faith, which he does. Daniel then reveals that he had secretly been draining the property of oil for years using nearby wells on his own land, and that the property was worth nothing. “I drink your milkshake!” in this case becomes derisive, intimidating, triumphant.

To start, the language portion of the scene is clearly symbolic in the Peircean sesnse. In “I drink your milkshake!”, the representamen are the literal words—in this case, focusing on “milkshake.” Peirce also sometimes refers to this as the sign itself (though Peirce had 76 different definitions of “sign” throughout his work, so who knows). [2] The object referred to here is not the concept of an actual milkshake you would drink, but of oil and, going deeper, of personal wealth and resources generally. When Daniel talks about a straw reaching across the room to drink somebody else’s milkshake, we understand that he is not speaking literally but metaphorically. This is the interpretant. Because of the context, we are able to decode the overall sign and understand the true intended meaning. [3]

Extrapolating a bit to other, non-language elements of the scene, I am in a bit of unknown territory. Sticking with the element of sound, but separated from language itself, we observe a number of artistic choices that signal things to us as viewers. The absence of music focuses our attention on the dialogue; the contrast between whispering and yelling gives a dynamic, foreboding feel to the scene; the slurping sound Daniel makes during his “milkshake” crescendo emphasizes the visceral, primal emotionality behind the exchange. With the possible exception of the last example, these aspects of the scene signify certain meanings because we have learned to interpret them as such. In terms of the element of imagery, Daniel bent and standing over a hunched Eli signifies his power over him. The fact that Daniel is bent himself shows his own weakness and wretchedness, and still being visually higher in the frame than Eli positions him as dominant. Later in the scene, his finger pointing in Eli’s face suggests a confrontation between the two. The finger (pointing) is the representamen, the concept of intimidation or confrontation is the object, and the link between the two in our minds is the interpretant.

If someone were to watch this scene even without speaking a lick of English, they would still probably understand at least the dynamic between the characters. This is because they more resemble natural signs/icons or indexes, rather than the more arbitrary symbols that are found in language. These non-language elements of the scene support the meaning-making process, though they may not map perfectly onto Peirce’s model as he developed it for language.


[1] Irvine, Martin. The Grammar of Meaning Systems: Sign Systems, Symbolic Cognition, and Semiotics. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Web. 27 Sept. 2016.

[2] Marty, Robert. “R. Marty’s 76 Definitions of the Sign by C.S. Peirce.” Arisbe, 16 Aug. 2011. Web. 28 Sept. 2016.

[3] Chandler, Daniel. Semiotics: The Basics. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2007. Web.